Tuesday night’s debate between the vice presidential candidates was more substantive than last week’s between the presidential candidates. Vice President Dick Cheney’s even-handed, informed performance was dramatically better than President Bush’s halting, repetitive answers. Even Sen. John Edwards came across in some ways better than his principal, Sen. John Kerry.
Most important, Cheney went some ways toward resetting the president’s campaign stride to one of competence and clarity from the wobbly half-answers and disdainful moves that Bush tried to pass for debating points a few days ago.
On defense policy, Cheney came across as knowledgeable on even the minutest aspects of the war in Iraq and on terrorism. He was most successful in pointing out how Kerry opposed strong American defense policies in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
The vice president’s most effective line was when he jabbed at John Kerry’s flip-flopping on the Iraq war in the face of criticism during the Democratic primary, “If they couldn’t stand up to pressures that Howard Dean represented, how can we expect them to stand up to al-Qaida?”
Sen. Edwards scored points in his criticism that even Bush administration officials have admitted there was no connection between the 9/11 attacks and the regime of Saddam Hussein. However, he could not get beyond a continuing weakness in the Kerry-Edwards position that, despite these objections, they supported the resolution for the war.
If Cheney won on Iraq, he at best tied on domestic policy. He was most effective in defending the Bush administrations tax cuts. He was right to criticize the Kerry-Edwards support for tax increases on those making more than $200,000 a year. Cheney noted that such tax increases would hit hard “900,000 small businesses” whose owners create “seven out of 10 jobs created” in the country.
Sen. Edwards did better when the last half-hour of the debate concentrated on the increase in government programs of recent years.
But like most Republicans who defend more government, the vice president couldn’t out-pander a Democrat, as Sen. Edwards called for even more spending, particularly on health care.
Overall, Cheney may have stemmed the slide caused by Bush’s weak performance. On Wednesday, the president was scheduled to make a major speech in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on terrorism and the economy. It could continue where Cheney left off, attacking Sen. Kerry for not having what it takes to fight terrorism and for favoring tax increases, and preview the stance the president will take in his Friday debate with Sen. Kerry.
Then we’ll see if the president is able, on his own, to fully regain his lost momentum.